Southern Virginia

General Observation:
I like the compactness, and inexpensiveness, of a point-and-shoot digital camera. Automatic light metering is a pain, but can be easily overridden. What I really miss is manual focus. I love manual focus. But for pictures here, I have no option. So if when I hike the Pacific Crest Trail, I’ll get a proper digital SLR.

July 7 — 15.8 Miles today, 475.3 miles from Springer, 1699.3 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +1170 feet. 
Climbs: 3,3,4, Wx: 80s, 90%, Shelter: 5, Dinner: 5, Overall: 4.

I had the scariest bike ride of my life last night to the grocery. I generally ride a bike with my feet clipped in to pedals (four points of contact — stability), a helmet (always, and it’s been quite helpful more than once in keeping my noggin intact) and at night, a proper head- and tail-light. Oh, yeah, and the bike is generally properly adjusted for me, and the componentry generally works.

Not here. I had the option of walking a mile up to the store. But with my legs as sore as my legs are, walking was the last thing I wanted to do. So I took one of the bikes they had lying around. None fit me. I took the largest one, which was adjusted for someone who was about half a foot shorter at best. Oh, and the front brake didn’t work. And there was no safety gear. And it was twilight. (I did wear my headlamp.) In retrospect, it would have been better to walk. I did, however, feel like a redneck riding a $99 Wal-Mart bike because my license had been revoked for drunk driving. (Or as the proprietor of Standing Bear Farm hostel would have called it, “driving after noon.” I took my shuttle to Asheville in the morning.)

I remember, too, back in the day, when only nice bikes had dual suspensions. I personally prefer (i.e. have) a hardtail (only front suspension) for the kind of off road biking I attempt, but about ten years ago, when I first became interested in mountain biking, you really had to spend good money to get a full suspension bike. Suspensions, good ones anyway, are expensive, and it was a pretty big deal to have one. Not now. I remember when it first started out that cheap bikes had front suspensions. Now these el-cheapo bikes have full suspensions. Granted, they are probably all for show and really do nothing for the rider. But it is just funny to see.

Anyway, I made it back from the store safely (literally every time a car passed I pulled on to the nonexistent shoulder and shined my headlamp back at them) without dying or massive bike failure, and made a haul. They had Cabot cheese and Cape Cod potato chips, so I was more than happy. Sea salt and vinegar. Lovely. I went to sleep and awoke at 9, took a shower, set my socks in the sun to dry, and finally hit the trail around noontime, with a requisite stop for the last real lunch for a while.

The trail was really nice, with lots of switchbacks. None of this Tennesseean nonsense going straight up and down meaningless little humps (although Bob Peoples said that new policy was to bypass minor peaks with no views). I was moving quite nicely except for my feet being jelly from the trail the night before. The trip was sixteen miles, some of which was on or paralleling the Virginia Creeper Trail, which is a beautiful bike trail along a picturesque river in a deep valley following the route of the old “Virginia Creeper” railroad, so named because of its slow speed. The trail climbs up from the Creeper trail up a ton of switchbacks (so many I took a picture) but is very well graded, and then goes right back down. It would be blasphemous to suggest the AT could well have followed the railroad grade along the river. Blasphemous. The rivers were high from the recent rain, and I went along.

I was in to the shelter around 7 with a few other folks, and thinking of long days. Baggins, who I had passed earlier arrived, having started April first and plugging along at five to eight miles a day, but thinking about putting in a ten-miler soon. I’ve been hearing about her since the Smokies. I was asleep around 10, and may have earned a proper trail name: Ziploch. Because when I poured out dinner, everything was ziplocked. And then I took out my camera (ziplocked) and trail guide (ziplocked). And I am spelling it with an H because, well, why not? Plus, “The Loch” is a beautiful lake in the Rockies.

July 8 — 17.1 Miles today, 492.6 miles from Springer, 1682 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +1360 feet. 
Climbs: 4,2,3, Wx: 60s-70s, 10%, Shelter: 4, Dinner: 4, Overall: 4.

I went shorter than expected today. There should be no excuse for going under 20. So here is my excuse: blisters. First of the trail. There are two reasons why I now got a blister. One is the rain. My calluses turned to jello (as they do when they are quite wet) and I lost their protection for a bit. But worse, when I had the aircast in my shoe for my ankle, it unevenly wore the padding. Now, there is a poorly- padded part which happens to be right where my blister is. I guess it will soon be time for new shoes.

It was a long climb up after a chilly morning to the Grayson Highlands, and I felt lethargic. My first twelve miles took just under eight hours, not the kind of pace I should be (or have been) setting. I made 17 miles in to a rather early camp, and the views over the Highlands (which were not originally open but burned off and now grazed) were great. There were even ponies. The ponies graze up there and then some are rounded up and auctioned off with the proceeds going to firefighters or something. They (the ponies) are kind of weird, misplaced, tiny horses. But they didn’t cause any trouble, just munching away on grass. The day was great for exposed hiking. There were high clouds which kept it cool, but underneath it was dry, so the views were good and long.

Of course, I could only think of Lewis Black (“I’d go over to my best Christian pals’ house, and it was like a warehouse — presents stacked from floor to ceiling. And out back there were six ponies. Six! We were going to buy princess one, but we loved all of them. Heh heh. Merry Christmas.”) and Jerry Seinfeld (“In fact, I hate anyone who ever had a pony.”). I included those in the trail register. Every shelter has a notebook where people write, well, stuff; registers are sometimes seized by the authorities if there is a crime along the trail, as they are a decent of record of who was where when. Although I assume if you intended to perpetrate a crime, you wouldn’t write in the registers.

At the end of the day, I went through Fatman’s Squeeze (a rock tunnel/crack of sorts) and then rocky footing made me settle for the shelter at 17 miles and not 22. Well, tomorrow, if all goes well, I’ll hike to Partnership Shelter, 31 miles, where one can order pizza from town and have it delivered! I then wrote one of my better shelter register entries. Someone had left some whacko book about the Ten Commandments and how they were being threatened but the only real moral stance left in America (yet, Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate. What was that one about no coveting thy neighbor’s wife? And thou shalt not kill doesn’t apply to brown people in Iraq, either) or something. Plus, some guy signs the logs with some kind of tag like “thank god for creating this beautiful place.” So I wrote: “Thank you to whoever left that nice book of toilet paper in with the register [it was the only other book in the bag], I only wish I could have found it before I went to the privy. And let us thank geologic and evolutionary processes for creating this beautiful place.” I was proud of myself.

Without company, I was in bed around 9, and thought of waking up quite early, hiking out to a sunrise, and then hoofing it off to Partnership. So I went to sleep.

July 9 — 20 Miles today, 512.6 miles from Springer, 1662 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -1560 feet. 
Climbs: 3,3, Wx: 70s, 30%, Shelter: 5, Dinner: 4, Overall: 4.

I didn’t get an early start. My watch alarm went off before six, but it as chilly out. I actually made it halfway out of my sleeping bag, and donned a fleece. Then, I rolled over and went back to sleep. Alas, I didn’t leave until 9.

Still, a 30 would not be out of the question to get to Partnership for pizza. But I dawdled, had blister problems, sat on a rock, and finally got some help from passersby who gave me some blister repair items. The best was moleskin, which I fastened, with a lot of athletic tape, in to my shoe over the jagged edge (well it wasn’t that jagged, but it did cause a blister). Yesterday I had moleskinned and duct-taped the heck out of it. Today, I put on a simple pad I was given. Less was more, and all of the sudden I felt much better.

A while later I met Ridgerunner Kevin as he was doing trail work. He signs registers whenever he passes through a shelter (he camps out the five days a week he is on duty) “another glorious day on the AT” or something of the sort. He is a very interesting fellow, having hiked SOBO a couple years back. I talked to him and it would seem that even with my slow start I maybe could make it to Partnership if I average 3 miles per hour overall, for eight or so hours. For some reason, I thought it possible, and off I ran.

Close to ten miles later, which I reeled off in under three hours, I realized that my punishment for not planning better (five more miles yesterday or an early start today) was no pizza. Thus, I would have another trail meal (and a good one at that) instead of real-people food twenty miles away at Trimpi shelter. That puts me 22 miles out of Atkins (resupply, dinner) and then three miles up to another shelter tomorrow. Not the worst situation in the world.

I arrived at Trimpi to a nice fire roaring in the shelter (it has a fireplace) and two absolute characters: Kevin and Bob. Kevin is an ex-Vietnam-era Marine who thru-hiked in 1986, is originally from New Jersey and now from Burlington, Vermont. Bob is a retired cop from Yonkers (New York) who looks like J Peterman from Seinfeld. And they bicker like a married couple (I am hitting myself for not taking a recording of it with my camera) with thick New York accents and a lot of expletives. It is for their entertainment, and ours, and was fabulous — better than TV! They fight over anything. A typical conversation:

Kevin: Throw some more wood on the fire.
Bob: You throw some more wood on the fire.
Kevin: Why should I? I got all the wood.
Bob: That’s a fucking lie! You took a three hour nap. I went out and got all the fucking wood!
Kevin: Bullshit! I went out in the forest with you and showed you where the wood was — you couldn’t find wood in a forest!
Bob: Oh, yeah, because all the trees are blocking the way…

…and so forth. Or another, after Kevin’s fuel bottle caught fire and he threw it in to the woods:

Bob: What the fuck did you throw your fuel in to the woods for?
Kevin: That’s what you are supposed to do when it catches fire so it doesn’t blow up.
Bob: You coulda just put it out. But you panicked and threw it away.
Kevin: I didn’t panic. Once you’ve been in a firefight in Vietnam you don’t fucking panic.
Bob: Face it. You panicked.
Kevin: I’ve had to do that once before. It’s what you do if you want to be the ultimate thru-hiker.
Bob: Well you throw like a girl anyway…

They quieted down by bedtime for me and the other two folks there, but it was quite a scene. Trimpi was a nice shelter, with a nice fire, and a great show.

July 10 — 24.9 Miles today, 537.5 miles from Springer, 1639.1 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -60 feet. 
Climbs: 3,3,4, Wx: 80s-90s, 100%, Shelter: 4, Dinner: -, Overall: 5.

I was out at 8 today, behind Bob. It was 10.6 rather easy miles to Partnership with a cow pasture, a pretty, clear river and a crossing of a numbered road (Virginia 601, I think) which was a dinky little road. For some odd reason, Virginia numbers every single road in the state. Which means, reading the guidebook, you have no idea if a road is going to be paved (Virginia 642, for instance) or little more than a jeep road. In any case, I arrived at 11:35, just behind Bob, and made a beeline to the flush toilet after suffering for the last mile or so (from eating too much oatmeal, five packets I think), which had impeccable trail work, despite some rather overgrown sections a bit back. I have found that trail maintenance is not uniform over short sections of trail. In any case, I went back to the shelter (a 200 yard backtrack, one of my longest thus far) to east leftover pizza left by Carrie and Masa for lunch (everyone else was staying at the shelter and would have their own warm pizza later on), and departed at 12:25, after a 50 minute break, more time than I wanted to spend.

The post office in Atkins closed at 4:30. And I had to hitch three miles in to town. So I wanted to get to the road by 4. That gave me 11.5 miles to do in 3:35. Parts of the trail were quite rocky and the going was slow. So after two and a half hours I had only covered 7 miles, leaving 4.5 miles to go in the last hour. Luckily it was almost all downhill, and on relatively easy grades. On the other hand, it crossed several open fields in the very hot sun, and had the first ripe blackberries I’d seen, so I had to make the obligatory stop (plus: black raspberries, which seem prevalent here in the south). I snuck between two trains which came through five minutes apart and made it to the road at 4:12 and stuck out my thumb. If I got a quick ride, I’d get my package and get on with my life. Otherwise, I’d have to form a contingency plan.

For half an hour, no one stopped. Even for a hiker. I guess it isn’t a big hiker town (since the post office is a bit off the trail). Finally, at 4:40, someone offered me a lift. Worth a shot — maybe someone is working a long shift at the PO. There was a car when we got there, I gave a knock, and got my package. Yahtzee! Then I ran next door to the grocery and proceed to do my shopping (hungry, I bought a lot of junk. Including candy corn. It’s corn, that tastes like candy. I can’t wait.) and eat three mediocre “cheezburgers” which, with tomato, lettuce and onion weren’t half bad.

I got ice cream too and ate it outside and then repacked my bag. First, I overheard a total redneck conversation in a language which resembled English but was not, as I understand it, English. All I could understand were the curse words, uttered in front of a kid who could not have been much older than 7 or 8. A bit later I talked with a woman who someday wants to hike the trail (as everyone seems to, except the rednecks) and whose grandparents used to own a farm and operate a hiker hostel. Cool. Now the farm is a vineyard for a local winery. Since this is the bible belt, when it opened, people protested it. But it is a new economy for the region, which seems to have good grape weather. Later on, she gave me a ride back to the trail. So this town, despite the long wait to hitch in, ain’t half bad. I hiked in three miles to the shelter, which was unbuggy but lonely, and went to sleep.

July 11 — 20.2 Miles today, 557.7 miles from Springer, 1616.9 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +1570 feet. 
Climbs: 4,3,4,1, Wx: 80s-90s, R, 50%, Shelter: 5, Dinner: 5, Overall: 4.

While I was making breakfast, Carrie and Masa (girl and dog, respectively) rolled by. They started mere hours behind me at Springer, jumped the Smokies (no dogs) and I had seen them at Peoples’ a while back, then eaten their food at Partnership, and passed them in the night as they stayed in the motel on the road at Atkins. She told me that the Bristol, Tennessee newspaper had had a picture of me standing in Damascus (taken without my knowledge) a few days before — I have to see if they will send me a copy.

Carrie and Masa headed out ahead of me but expected me to catch up, but I had a slow day. It was wicked warm out, especially in the sun across the many fields. And over tons of stiles. Probably a dozen of them. The deal with the stiles is that when land along the AT was appropriated by the National Park Service, farm owners were given the choice of selling their land at assessed value (usually well short of the real value) or keeping it as working pasture land but promising to keep it pastoral in eternity. Along here, many opted for that, so you cross wooden stiles and then dodge cow pies across the pasture. It makes for interesting hiking, if nothing else. I wandered along a river by a very dilapidated mill. Since the river drained the cow fields, I would not touch the water in it.

The day was a slog. Lots of little climbs. Up and down. Up and down. Water sources were poor, where they existed, and rain has been lacking recently. There was quite a bit of mud, too. Plus, the end of the day promised the first 2000 foot climb since Davenport Gap (just after my Asheville Ankle Adventure) to a shelter with no water, so I had to carry for a couple miles from a springfed, mountain pond (which are few and far between in these parts). The blazing along the ridge was god-awful. Jeep roads intersected with no blaze to tell you which was the AT. There were no blazes along the trail to the little spring. And right before the shelter was a very confusing intersection with no blazing going northbound, and in the failing light I searched for a while before I found a blaze. Granted, going across the open, mountaintop fields was a blast, although it was too hazy and cloudy for any good views, especially down in to Burke’s Garden. This is an interesting crater-like landscape (actually, from what I gather, caused by limestone layers) which is surrounded by high ridges on all sides. Inside it a circle of pasture land which looks striking from the sky, or the trail on a sunny day (I have a rather hazy picture, here’s an aerial shot). The Vanderbilts wanted the land for their Biltmore estate, but no one would sell, so they built near Asheville instead. I wandered through the fields, smelling the almost-ripe blackberries, and avoiding the patches (in some cases, large fields) of poison ivy. You can look, but you better not touch.

In any case, I was lugging a gallon of water (two Nalgenes and a ziplock, of course, full of water) up the hill to the shelter. It is a beauty — an old firewarden’s cabin with plexiglass windows (for light) and a latching door for bear protection. Wahoo! Carrie was there, and having missed the pond (and settled for a very scummy pond near the shelter) was happy I’d brought extra water along. I recently found out from my folks that after years of my work transplanting and replanting our raspberries, I am away from what was called a “bumper crop.” The garden never cooperates — I never get to enjoy the fruits of my labor (pun definitely intended). At least there are some along the trail.

July 12 — 21.5 Miles today, 579.2miles from Springer, 1595.4 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -1490 feet. 
Climbs: 4,4,4, Wx: 80s, 7%, Shelter: 5, Dinner: +, Overall: 5.

After a late evening in the shelter (I didn’t arrive until close to 9) we didn’t awaken until 8 and left a bit before 10. We also dawdled a bit at the first spring down the mountain, where Carrie discovered her $75 pump/filter had failed. Thank goodness for Aqua Mira and other such chlorine dioxide filters. After six miles we got to another road where there was a van. We talked to the driver for a bit and she offered us water. She mentioned something about a camp but I shrugged it off and went off towards the next shelter for lunch as Carrie lingered, as I eat a full lunch and she tends towards energy bars. In any case, I was informed at lunch that we had been invited to stay for the night, meals provided, at a local camp, with bunks, showers and all. Free. Can’t argue with that kind of logic.

There had been signs for miles advertising the bridge out at Laurel Creek and informing hikers to take the blue blazed alternate route. We got to the intersection and saw white blazes scratched off of trees, a sign to take the blue trail. Since the AT was “officially” closed, the blue blaze becomes the real trail, so it doesn’t imperil my “2000 miler” quest, which is available, on the honor system, to anyone who has hiked the full AT, without skipping any of it. (i.e. not Bill Bryson) In any case, the trail was quite a bit longer, but after a road walk we finally found the creek and the missing bridge. Granted, with the low water levels, the creek would have been a rockhop to cross. But I guess with higher water it might be more of a predicament. Still, the sign at the road there said: “AT closed? Bullshit. Look for yourself…”

We again met Trail Angel Sarah, who had offered us the lodging and was waiting to pick up day hikers staying at her camp. We planned to meet seven miles down the trail and set off, finding more trail magic in the form of cold juice left by the Appalachian Trail Outreach Ministries. I guess Tropicana is Jesus-approved. We hiked our last seven miles in fast time (it was very well graded), only two hours. The only fly in the ointment was when we passed a dead dog on the trail (probably the result of a bear or coyotes — who knows) and Masa, also a dog, did not want to walk by. She stopped and ran in the other direction, and Carrie had to drag her by. Masa, only 10 months old, is a very well-behaved trail dog and really fine to walk with, and she is getting good training on the trail.

We rode 20 minutes to Camp Laurel (“Come explore God’s wonderful creation”) where I decided to keep my mouth pretty tightly sealed. I mean, if they are going to be nice because Jesus told them to, and give me food and all, I have no complaints. I saw a church sign on the camp: “Just do it: Go to church on Sunday.” That is totally the wrong reason to have religion. If you only go because you are supposed to, you are being brainwashed, plain and simple. If you choose to embrace religion, you should do it because you want to, not because you feel you are forced to. But, as I said, I kept this to myself. The food was great. They may be goyim, but there were seven people, and they had cooked for about twenty. My mother would be proud. Chicken cordon bleu, sort of redneck style. Luckily, I was able to put a dent in the food (Even for folks who’ve seen thru-hikers, I impressed them with my eating prowess.) and went to bed, after an ice cream sundae, happy and full. And clean, after a very long and hot shower, complete with a massage feature on the shower head. I was prayed for at dinner (“in the name of Jesus”). I guess they just like hikers. Jesus be praised!

July 13 — 26.3 Miles (MARATHON), 605.5 miles from Springer, 1569.1 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -280 feet. 
Climbs: 4,4, Wx: 80s, TRF, 50%, Shelter: 5, Dinner: 2, Overall: 3.

We had a big breakfast. French toast, fruit, juice, eggs, sausage, et cetera. And I then politely declined a copy of the New Testament I was offered (“Oh, no. Thank you. We already have all the toilet paper we need” was not what I said) before we rode back to the trail. We were perplexed for a moment before spotting a distant blaze along the road and realizing we had a road walk for a half mile. Neither guide book mentioned that. The Thru Hiker Handbook (author: Wingfoot) has a decent mileage chart, but the Thru Hiker Companion’s is all but useless, as it mentions only some features. Also, the maps for this section are pretty bogus and the elevation charts generally useless. Someone should and could come up with a better set of books and maps. It was then ten easy miles to the shelter except for the lack of water along the trail. Even at the shelter the spring was shallow and running slow — we really needed rain.

At the shelter, I met a hiker called Elf. When I mentioned I was from Newton, he said he’d been in Newton on April 19, 1976. “Oh,” I said. “The hot marathon.” Yup. It was 94 for his 26 miles, but he finished. Beyond there, I dallied a bit, eating a lot of blueberries and blackberries (a ton of them), and I crossed a cool suspension bridge and set off in the light rain to Dismal Falls. The rain was great — enough to cool me, and the air, but not enough for wet shoes. The falls were nice, but not running too high without any recent rain. I also met Whispers, a.k.a. James Fraumeni, NNHS ’99. Small world. I knew his brother Michael ’02 vaguely and he lives over near the Cabot school. He was hammocking at the falls, but Carrie and I, after a long talk with Whispers, set off north to the shelter. It was six flat miles along the stream, but the rains came, and it was slow. Once it was dark, we turned on a poorly marked road, then went back, found the trail crossed it, cursed the book and map which proved useless again, and finally got to the shelter. We hung our food, didn’t cook in the rain, and went to sleep. Wet.

July 14 — 16.6 Miles today, 622.1 miles from Springer, 1552.5 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -1280 feet. 
Climbs: 2,4, Wx: 80s-60s, TRFW, 30%, Shelter: -, Dinner: -, Overall: 4.

From the shelter register:
“I think Italy Beat France in the World Cup. Does the US men’s team ever have a chance? No … So I guess we’ll stick to bombing the shit out of countries instead.”
–Kite. US Infantry ’94-’97 … Bring the Troops Home.

Because of the lingering wetness, I didn’t get out as early as I would have liked. And the first four miles were slow and uphill. Beyond there, rocks. The rain did hold off until I was on the ridge, but the skies then opened, and I hiked in a downpour for a while. The rhythm of the rain kept me moving, though, and I only stopped to clear waterbars and better drain the trail. My shoes were soaked, but with luck, I made it to the powerlines and ridgeline after the storm had passed! I kept going, wanting to make town before the PO in Pearisburg (Pronounced Paris-burg, like the city in France. The E is silent.) closed at 4:30, and got a couple nifty views before a long and sloppy descent, where I twice slipped and pirouetted on my poles to avoid falling. I was at the road just before PO closing (although the book says they will generally answer a knock until 5:30) and I stuck out my thumb.

The first car by was a taxicab. I didn’t really want to pay for the ride. But he said “you look beat. I am going in to town anyway. Hop in. No charge.” I think that is pretty much the definition of trail magic. I made it to the Post Office, got my package, and started wandering towards the hostel, perched on a hill about a mile from town. I wandered in to a pizza restaurant and was offered a ride by a guy who, it turns out, runs the hostel. My lucky day. Later, Whispers, who had not intended to make it to town, showed up, and we called Carrie and arranged to meet for dinner. We walked a mile or so, without packs and in sandals, to town, ate mediocre pizza, and I then went back and went to sleep.

Everyone else was intent on zero-ing in Pearisburg. I called Heather, a participant from my Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) internship last summer, who had been away from Knoxville when I came through on the trail. I also got from her the number of another REU person, Paul, who went to Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, a mere 25 miles down the road. I gave him a call. And, lucky me, he happened to be in town, one of two weeks he’s here all summer after a field school in New Mexico (and Colorado. And the Grand Canyon. I got a slide show, it was spectacular.) and before he leaves for grad school at UVM. So the plan is to go in to Blacksburg tomorrow and hang out. And dry out. Sweet.